Gilbert takes home top football award
If there was a vote taken among nationwide media companies that follow high school football about the top individual honor for the 2008 season, it would be a landslide for quarterback Garrett Gilbert from Lake Travis High of Austin, Texas.
Gilbert's latest award: He has been chosen as EA SPORTS Mr. Football USA. He's already received top national honors as the Gatorade Player of the Year and similar status from USA Today, Parade Magazine and others.
In his final high school game, Gilbert (6-foot-4, 200 pounds) threw for five touchdowns and ran for two others as Lake Travis completed a 16-0 season with a 48-23 victory over Longview in the Class 4A Division I state final.
Besides leading a championship team for two straight years -- Lake Travis also won a state crown in Gilbert's junior season -- and a team that was No. 3 in the final ESPN RISE FAB 50 national rankings, Gilbert amassed record-breaking passing totals. He ended the season with a state-record 4,851 yards and had 55 TD passes. At one point during the year, he had 38 TDs and just two interceptions. Gilbert also set a new Texas state career passing record with 12,534 yards, breaking the previous mark by just 2 yards that was held by current Texas Tech quarterback Graham Harrell.
"Just this whole year has been incredible," Gilbert said on Wednesday evening from his home in Austin. "Winning it all with an undefeated season and all that has come after has been great."
Since 1982, when the USA Today honors began coming out, just four other players have had a similar consensus national player of the year sweep that Gilbert has enjoyed for 2008.
Two of those were for 1985 and 1986 when virtually everyone chose quarterback Jeff George from Warren Central of Indianapolis (in '85), and then a year later running back Emmitt Smith came along at Escambia of Pensacola, Fla., and shattered numerous records.
In 1993, when three-time NFL MVP Peyton Manning was at Isidore Newman of New Orleans, some in Louisiana liked Josh Booty of Evangel Christian for the highest honors, but nationally Manning was a clean sweep.
The last player before Gilbert to get a similar honors landslide was quarterback-running back Ronald Curry of Hampton, Va., in 1997. Part of the reason for Curry's dominance is that his team at Hampton was among the highest-ranked in the nation in 1996 during his junior year, and then was No. 1 in the nation in 1997.
"It's definitely something you can't do without your teammates," Gilbert said of being placed alongside names such as those above. "Football is the ultimate team game. That shows in the record and everything else."
In most seasons, national player of the year honors tend to get split among several players. Just four years ago, for example, three separate quarterbacks put up huge numbers and led their teams to undefeated records and state championships. Those three players -- Mitch Mustain of Springdale, Ark., Tim Tebow from Nease of Jacksonville, Fla., and Matthew Stafford from Highland Park of Dallas -- each were strongly considered for the highest honors. Mustain and Stafford got the most. Tebow might have swept, but he missed three games that year due to injury.
An injury to a Florida quarterback also contributed to Gilbert being able to run away with all the '08 honors. Early in the season, Aaron Murray from Plant of Tampa threw for eight touchdowns in one game. But Murray, who is going to Georgia next season, then went down with a knee injury that knocked him out of action for two months. If Murray had not suffered that injury, he might have thrown for 70 touchdowns and more than 5,000 yards, and then some of the national honors clearly might have gone to him.
And while Gilbert had an even better senior season than junior season, the same could not be said for two others who were expected to be major EA SPORTS Mr. Football USA contenders: Matt Barkley from Mater Dei of Santa Ana, Calif., and running back Washaun Ealey from Emanuel County Institute of Twin City, Ga.
Barkley, the Gatorade National Player of the Year as a junior and widely regarded as having the best throwing arm among the nation's current quarterbacks, was on a team that went only 8-4 and tossed 18 interceptions, although he still ended his career among the best in California history. Ealey, who scored 58 touchdowns as a junior for a team that won a state title, had 41 as a senior for a team that was beaten in the state playoffs. Ealey also was held to fewer than 100 yards rushing in his last game.
Everything for Gilbert, on the other hand, went extremely well. He successfully rehabbed from offseason shoulder surgery, his teammates came through for him, he had the high grade point average to make him eligible for the Gatorade honor in the first place, and he ended it all with a huge exclamation point in the final game.
"I was blessed in so many ways this season and I can't say enough about that," Gilbert said. "It was all just a dream come true. I'm glad I got to do it one more time with my friends, and right now I'm just trying to enjoy it."
Up next this weekend is his official trip to the University of Texas. Gilbert said he has been "a fan of" the Longhorns for many years, and he has committed to signing a letter of intent next month. On this trip, Gilbert said he believes he will be hosted by Longhorns All-American quarterback Colt McCoy.
"I am looking forward to learning a lot from Colt about how things are done and I'm excited about going there," Gilbert said.
Being so close to home also will allow Garrett to keep track of his younger brother, Griffin, a 6-5 freshman who caught passes on the varsity from his older brother this season. Garrett and Griffin are the sons of Gale Gilbert, the former University of California and NFL quarterback who appeared in five Super Bowls. Gale and his wife, Kim, met at Cal in a match of the quarterback and the cheerleader.
The cheering for their son this season was loud and frequent, and when all of the nation's postseason honors for 2008 are considered, another word comes to mind: unanimous.
Mark Tennis is the deputy sports editor of ESPN RISE.